By Andrew Hirsh
After a successful MLB debut last season, Jose Constanza entered Spring Training with the inside track to land the Braves’ final bench spot. And while he is still in a good position to win the job, the competition for that roster spot has grown increasingly fierce.
Emerging out of no where in 2011, Constanza quickly became a fan favorite, filling in admirably for injured outfielders and even stealing playing time from a slumping Jason Heyward. A good contact hitter and a blur on the basepaths, he was exactly what every team hopes to find in a backup position player: A feisty, pestering force who knows his role and does all that is asked of him. His success notwithstanding, the unforeseen production of multiple newcomers gives the Braves more depth than they expected and Constanza more of a battle than he would like.
Luis Durango and Jordan Parraz, both in their first season with the Braves system, have each had strong springs thus far, emerging as potential options for the Braves in 2012.
The 25 year-old Durango, whose nickname in Braves’ camp is “Dodge” (shouldn’t be hard to figure that one out), is the stronger of the two. He has so far flown under the radar throughout his career with a .312 average and .403 on-base percentage in seven minor league campaigns. In 74 plate appearances in the Majors, the former San Diego Padre has a career .292 AVG and a .361 OBP.
As a switch hitter with tremendous speed, Durango plays a comparable game to Constanza. Through 12 Spring Training games this March, his average is a gaudy .526 with an eye-popping .625 on-base percentage. If the Panamanian product continues to hit with a similar level of consistency for the remainder of the month, it will be difficult for Fredi Gonzalez and Frank Wren to keep him away from Turner Field.
Parraz, a 27-year-old journeyman from Nevada, has played for eight different minor league teams since being drafted by the Phillies in 2003. Parraz’s career numbers aren’t particularly noteworthy outside of a nifty .373 career OBP. However, while trying to avoid the “career minor-leaguer” label, Parraz set out to impress the Braves brass this spring, and he’s succeeded. In 16 Grapefruit League games this year: .409 AVG; .480 OBP; 636 SLG. Those numbers are quite an improvement from this time last year, as he tallied just four hits in 18 Spring Training contests with the New York Yankees in 2011.
Parraz has a slim chance of starting the season in the Majors, but if his recent performance translates into the regular season (likely in Gwinnett), he could certainly receive a call-up sometime during 2012.
With the torrid performances of his outfield rivals so far in March, Constanza would love to have a strong spring. Unfortunately, it’s been anything but. A .174 AVG and .208 OBP in 13 games this spring won’t help his cause. However, his success last year will not have been forgotten, and he still has a couple weeks to remind the Braves of what he can do.
While Constanza may not agree, the additions of Durango and Parraz could have big payoffs over the course of time, as added competition gives the Braves a greater sense of security moving forward
From a fan’s perspective, having the likes of Durango and Parraz in the fold is reassuring, if nothing else. Possessing a deep bench is more than a luxury in the MLB these days—it’s a necessity. And if this spring is any indication, the Braves have that essential element within the organization.
By the way, if you haven’t heard our mid-spring Southern Fried Baseball podcast, you can hear it here.
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